As LSU students gathered in the Quad to protest police brutality and stand in solidarity with the black community Wednesday evening, Stephen Finley sat at his home, awaiting a Zoom call.
Finley, director of LSU’s African and African American Studies (AAAS) program, was a guest at the virtual LSU Student Senate public meeting. On the agenda were two resolutions — one to denounce recurring violence and injustices committed against black Americans, another to show student support for the elevation of AAAS from program to department status.
Finley was there to champion his program. But he had hardly begun to speak when he was interrupted by a “Zoom-bomber” loudly mocking George Floyd. The Senate ended the meeting and reconvened privately to pass both resolutions.
Student Government Senate planned to discuss resolutions denouncing recurring racial injusti…
“I was disappointed for [the students], but not wholly surprised,” Finley said.
It wasn’t the first time his advocacy had faced deterrents. Finley has been pushing for AAAS to become a department for over four years now, he said, to no avail. He’s had conversations with two deans of LSU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences: Stacia Haynie, who is now the University’s executive vice president and provost, and Troy Blanchard, who replaced Haynie as dean in 2018.
Currently, students can only minor in AAAS or make it their concentration of a liberal arts degree. If promoted to a department, AAAS would then be a major, and its budget would increase dramatically. Finley said that AAAS operates with “embarrassingly little money.”
“You can't even call it a budget,” Finley said. “It's a stipend that hasn't changed in 25 years.”
Finley said he was happy to see Student Senate pass the resolution, since the opinion of students could potentially carry more weight and respect than the opinion of professors.
“I have not seen the student government resolution and look forward to learning more,” Blanchard wrote the Reveille in an email. “I greatly appreciate Student Government’s interest in the program. The director of the program, Dr. Stephen Finley, is a fantastic leader and advocate for AAAS. This is a concept that Dr. Finley and I have discussed. Again, this structure is something I have been exploring since my appointment as dean.”
A few hours before the Student Senate meeting, AAAS Professor Lori Martin received the news that three officers had been charged with aiding and abetting the killing of George Floyd. It had been over a week since his death.
"Sadly, often in the case of violence against black people, whether it's from white police officers or sometimes ordinary white civilians, that takes a little bit more not even to get justice, but to get the attention that the atrocities deserve,” Martin said.
Floyd was murdered on Martin’s birthday. She tries not to watch videos of police killings but couldn’t avoid the nine-minute video that sparked protests in all 50 states and around the world.
“When these things happen, they're not happening in isolation,” Martin said. “Even though we can pinpoint an event that sparks a riot…when you look at the months and the days leading up to it, there are also often times economic challenges, where often times members of the dominant racial group are feeling threatened by black progress, or they feel economically disadvantaged, and that might be the tipping point for start of some kind of racial unrest or human uprising.”
Black Americans own a disproportionate share of the over 110,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths, according to National Public Radio. Many of black citizens live in poverty, ensuring them worse healthcare than whites, which renders them more likely to suffer from a pre-existing condition. Less likely to work from home, black Americans are also more likely to contract the virus and then receive inferior medical treatment.
Louisiana’s COVID-19 death rate of 32% among African Americans is also second-highest in the country. The coronavirus angered, frustrated and scared all Americans, especially those of color. The Floyd murder took that angst to new heights, levels Louisiana hasn’t seen since the murder of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers in 2016.
Martin watched that video too. A couple of her students were arrested while protesting the murder and are still dealing with that trauma today, she says.
“The killings of people like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, George Floyd and even the death of Sandra Bland, some will say those are manifestations of racism," Martin said. "There's also the fact that in many cities there are disproportionate numbers of black people dying from COVID-related illnesses, and you have persistent racial disparities in wealth, in the criminal justice system, in health, in education and entertainment, those are all manifestations of racism.”
Finley grew up in Santa Ana, California, and lived in South Central Los Angeles. He was in his mid-20s when Rodney King was infamously beaten by LAPD officers and when a 15-year-old girl named Natasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head and killed in a South-Central convenience store.
Finley remembers taking trips to that same store as a child.
A jury acquitted all four officers who beat King, and a judge sentenced the woman who killed Harlins to only five years of probation.
Today, Finley still finds himself mourning a few more senseless deaths of black citizens and continues fighting and advocating for black advancement.
Martin and Finley each devote their lives to teaching about the injustices that protesters have sought to expose in the last two weeks. They teach injustice and inequality in their classrooms and leave campus only to encounter the very oppositional forces that they warn their students about.
Across the country, black faculty who study race are routinely threatened with death, bodily harm or loss of livelihood. As examples, Finley cites George Yancy of Emory, Tommy Curry, formerly of Texas A&M, and Saida Grundy of Boston University.
“We have to start asking real questions about whether or not academic freedom even applies to minority professors in America anymore,” Curry told The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2019, as he left the states to teach in Scotland.
Finley said it’s difficult and anxiety-producing to work under such stressful conditions.
Finley has had difficult conversations with graduate students who are considering a career in academia, struggling to recruit and retain professors of color. He said he sometimes goes weeks without even seeing another black faculty member. He feels that the University has left its black faculty on their own, without adequate numbers of fellow black professors and thus, a true support system.
The recent turmoil has prompted the University to release statements, reassuring the LSU community of their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“As a college, we are committed to building a faculty and staff that reflect the diversity of our majors, our students, and the state of Louisiana,” Blanchard wrote. “We have set this as a priority for our college and we will continue to work diligently to achieve this goal with thoughtful guidance from our newly created HSS Diversity Committee. The HSS Diversity Committee was launched this spring and consists of student, faculty, and staff representatives.”
Finley said he hasn’t seen the material effects of those statements.
“It's almost a form of gaslighting,” Finley said. “That on paper we’re important, and our issues are important, but when you gauge the experience of African-American faculty, which is really challenging if you talk to them, in the material effects of those statements that there's a really broad gap, a huge gap, between the statements and the material realities of those statements, not just at LSU, but across the country.”
Even if a university enrolls many black students and many black professors, Finley said there will still be problems.
“The faculty who are hired by these predominantly white institutions are faculty who are seen as being able to inhabit whiteness,” Finley said.
He wants instead to empower people who genuinely wish to change structures of the university and students who take the lead for AAAS inspire Finley and Martin.
“To me, they’re stars. They really are,” Finley said. “And they’re beautiful.”